The Master Builder
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 22, 2008
Frank McGuinness's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder, commissioned by Irish Repertory Theatre and receiving its world premiere there under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly, feels substantially different from other versions of this play (and other works of Ibsen) that I've come across.
The plot of course follows two days in the life of Halvard Solness, the builder of the play's title. We meet him in his studio, where he is gruff and bullying to his two assistants—one of whom, Brovik, is his former mentor and boss, while the other, Ragnar, is that man's son, a talented young architect whose work Solness is deliberately suppressing. To his bookkeeper Kaja, he is clearly deceptive: it's evident that she is in love with him, and that he is retaining her solely for his own convenience.
Solness's rottenness is even more apparent when we see him with his wife, Aline. Though we will discover later in the story that she has borne a great deal of sorrow in her life, he treats her rather brutishly, and she seems concerned only with uncovering the adultery she suspects her husband is committing with young Kaja.
Suddenly a visitor arrives—a young woman named Hilde Wangel, who has escaped from her provincial home to be with her idol, Solness. Years ago, when she was but a girl, he built a church in her town and made an indelible impression on her when he climbed to the top of its tower. He told her then, she says, that he would build her a kingdom someday. Now she has arrived to claim it.
In conversations with Solness and his wife, Hilde dredges up bitter memories of the compromises both have made to arrive where they are in life. But she also awakens something else inside Solness. The question is the nature of what she helps him find within himself—in other versions of the play, it's felt like the lost nobility of youth; but here it's a twisted bit of hubris. McGuinness frames Solness's inner struggle to be between himself and Himself (i.e., God; the play contains many Irish locutions that sometimes bring us up short). I always thought, though, that the battle is simply between the remnants of an idealist/artist, on the one hand, and the ashes of a manipulative pragmatist, on the other.
This Master Builder, in consequence, feels reductive to me, and not only in its presentation of its protagonist's central crisis. All of the relationships seem flattened here; I missed particularly the hint of love and respect between the Solnesses—the sense that Halvard isn't just guilty about what's become of his wife but genuinely mournful for what both partners have lost due to her sorrow and sense of duty.
And I kept struggling with a key question. Is Hilde even real? O'Reilly has her make her initial entrance by essentially walking through a wall (as opposed to coming through anything we understand to be a door). Is she some supernatural power (or messenger from above) come to wreak destiny on Solness? Charlotte Parry, as Hilde, comes across at first as a wily seductress but later as muse/confessor; her work here fails to answer this pivotal question.
Meanwhile, James Naughton's performance in the title role feels superficial; I sensed real discomfort with the character on the part of this accomplished actor. Kristin Griffith, as Aline, also plays only her character's stony surface. The supporting actors, though, provide real humanity: Herb Foster's beaten-down Brovik and Daniel Talbott's conflicted young architect Ragnar, Letitia Lange's Kaja, and Doug Stender's Dr. Herdel (the Solnesses' inevitable confidant) all portray the effects of Halvard's soullessness to great effect.
Set designer Eugene Lee has built a much-too-busy environment for the play, cluttered with filing cabinets and other furniture; particularly if Hilde is the symbol I suspect she is, a sparer world would seem to be more appropriate for this Master Builder. Other design elements work nicely, though the music that opens each act (sound design is by Zachary Williamson) feels at odds in each case with what follows on stage.
Let me conclude by saying that I strongly suspect that some will respond very positively to what McGuinness and O'Reilly have chosen to emphasize in this production. I think finally the reaction to a new adaptation of a classic work like this is necessarily very personal. Irish Rep has given us an intriguing new take on a play that has stirred up scholars and audiences alike for more than a century. The debate goes on.